A life of humility and hardship.
That’s the impression that we get from the Scriptures of the life of Christ, that from the very beginning, this is the kind of life that he was to lead. From the first to the last, the circumstances that he faced would not be easy and luxurious, but would be marked by struggle and suffering.
Not a great way to start out reflecting on this glorious moment of the birth of Jesus!
Which is glorious, after all. It is one of the two greatest days of celebration in the Church — Christmas and Easter. The birth of Christ, and his rising from the dead. The incarnation and the resurrection. God with us, and God redeeming us.
And in the mystery and wisdom of God, these two things come together to bring for us hope and joy in the love of God for us.
But just think about the curious nature of Christ’s coming. And let’s begin by setting a foundation of what God is like as described in the writings of the Bible. In it we see a God that created all things, and sustains all life. Who created water, land, and sky, who created the sun, moon, and stars. Who separated the water from the land, and made all the plants appear. Who created the birds, the fish, and all the animals according to their kinds. Who created humankind to bear the image of God, and to have dominion over all that the Lord God made, and who promised redemption to the man and the woman, to heal the rift in the relationship that occurred when they chose to follow their own desires rather than to retain trust and fidelity in their connection with God.
This is our God, whose glory is unfathomable, whose greatness is beyond knowing.
And who chose to be born in human flesh, born in poverty to a young, unremarkable couple who were part of an oppressed people group living in a backwater area of the world like Nazareth in Palestine, part of the Roman Empire.
Which is just crazy. I wouldn’t have done it that way… if, if I were God, you know. Why should it be that the Almighty would live in humility and hardship? It’s degrading, and confusing as to why God would have it this way. Would choose humility and hardship.
Well, I find inspiration in this, in the answer to this question, in the letter to the Philippians, in a passage that we more commonly draw from in the context of the crucifixion, and which we will hear read on Palm Sunday. It reads:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Let me read part of that again: Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.
The theological term for this is the kenosis of Christ, the self-emptying (kenosis being the Greek word here translated as “emptied”). And much is debated about what exactly that means and what was given up, or put aside, or not tapped into while living in the flesh. But take it on its face, and we have a Christ who sacrificed a great deal, not only at the crucifixion, but also in his birth. Gave up equality with God to be born in human likeness and bring about redemption from our sins. Humbled himself to live a life like us and to bring about the great work that God had in store for humanity.
There are two things, then, that we can take away from this.
First, to be in awe of the love and kindness of God toward us. That God, the divine one, would do the unimaginable, what we do not deserve, because God loves us and is determined to help us in our needs, both great and small. That there is seemingly nothing that God wouldn’t do to help us and to overcome that which assails us.
Second, to learn from the example that has been given, and to imitate that which we learn from Christ’s act of self-emptying. To recall the first sentences of the passage we read from Philippians: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… who emptied himself… who humbled himself… and became obedient.
To live in the way of Jesus is a life of humility and hardship. It’s not an easy path to walk. It’s not glamorous. It’s not flashy or exciting. It’s hard work. But it’s also good work, because it is the way of love, hope, and joy for those who do it.
It’s also the path that God took in the redemption of humanity. That rather than a glamorous, flashy, and exciting plan of salvation, it involved the unremarkable act of the of the birth of a baby to a relatively unremarkable young couple in an unremarkable part of the world. It was only after his death that the remarkable happened, when he rose to new life again. And between his birth and resurrection, his life was marked by humility and hardship, and a stubborn faithfulness to the calling of God upon him and his life.
A faithfulness that didn’t waiver, no matter how tired he was, nor how hungry he was. That didn’t waiver no matter how cruel others were toward him or how they mistreated him. That only wavered for a moment when faced with his imminent crucifixion, but held intact in the end because of his commitment to do good for others, no matter the cost for himself, and showed to all the stubborn faithfulness to the calling of God upon him and his life.
May this path of Christ be a blessing to you, may it be a blessing to your souls and your spirits, and may you all have a merry Christmas.